Baba was behind the steering wheel. I was sitting right behind him beside ammi and my younger brother, peeking out of the window with an inquisitive gaze. Our car was briskly negotiating a road in Buffer Zone, a predominantly Urdu-speaking neighbourhood of Karachi. We were headed to a mushaira that baba had put together. There, I was finally going to see this Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi that he always spoke about.
A taped tennis ball came flying in through the open window and smashed baba’s spectacles. He fell on his side from the impact and the car screeched to a halt. A shard of glass tore into his right eye and as he lay cupping it with his hands, blood trickled down from between his fingers.
Across the street, a group of boys was playing cricket. The bowler had delivered the ball so quick that both the batsman and the keeper missed it and it traveled all the way to baba’s window. As we got out of the car panicking, the boys came running to apologise. Baba was taken to the hospital and we were taken home. I didn’t see Yusufi that day, but baba did. He managed to convince the doctors to delay the surgery to remove the shard until the next morning; they washed out his eye and fixed him up with bandages. The mushaira was saved and so was baba’s eye. I got busy growing up and we soon stopped telling the horrific tale at family get-togethers. I didn’t revisit the incident for over a decade — until 2014. Yusufi hadn’t forgotten it. He recalled it years later at an event of Anjuman-e-Sadat-e-Amroha, and the speech made it to the book, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan.
Baba didn’t stop talking about Yusufi. As a child, all I knew was that Yusufi was a funny man who he would quote often and everyone would chuckle. His frequently employed superlatives filled me with enough envy to steal Zarguzasht from his room. Yusufi’s language was beyond comprehension and my mental faculties failed to process the humour. However, I compensated by expressing unnecessary amusement at the few sentences that I understood. I was engaged in an activity of a higher order and felt important.
Zarguzasht fulfilled my pubescent longing for refinement. I would take special care in casually slipping it into everyday conversations with friends. I was automatically better than them because I knew Yusufi and they didn’t. It was a great feeling to have.
In Pakistan, anything upcoming is either seen with disinterest or dread. This, however, was not the case when, in 2014, word went around that Yusufi is ready with his fifth book, Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan. The excitement was evident. Even President Mamnoon Hussain flew in to inquire about his health and tell him that the work is eagerly awaited. It was as if the moribund Urdu literary milieu was being brought back to life against its wishes. Yusufi hadn’t published in 24 years. Urdu humour was bereft of vitality and Yusufi was willing to once again breathe life into it.
Most excited among his devotees was Ahmed Shah, the literary groupie who has been the livewire of Karachi Arts Council since forever. The book was to open the seventh edition of their International Urdu Conference. In October that year, the book saw the light of day, and Yusufi was pictured posing with it, wearing a beige suit and a tired smile.
It vanished from shelves. Loyalists buried their faces in their copies. The verdict was soon out. Naysayers pounced on him. Critics shredded the book to pieces and fed them to newspaper reviews, raising teleological questions over the incoherent compilation of his many speeches and lectures. The consensus was that the great wordsmith is fallible and now there was evidence. He was never absolved of this crime and the distaste even bled into many of his obituaries.
In an interview with Dawn News prior to the book launch, a nonagenarian Yusufi said it was published against his wishes and he wasn’t even shown the final manuscript. He didn’t consider the speeches fit for printing and was known for being extremely meticulous about what he published. This line of thought agrees with a 1995 interview of his, as quoted by daily Dawn: “What the readers want is not my problem. I only worry about what I like and what I want to publish. If the readers like them, I take it as my good fortune. If they don’t, I can live with it.”
The Dawn News piece further reported that he didn’t say a word about the book at the launch event.
Sham-e-Sher-e-Yaraan and its pompous launch was the product of the mischief and unfettered love of those around him, for which they should be forgiven. The book is a celebration of Yusufi and even if it entails his passive consent, it should not be read in the same vein as his other four books.
Yusufi curated his literary career with great care. His perfectionism was known to all — he published a mere four books in 29 years since 1961 and none since 1990. (I want to believe him when he says he didn’t publish the fifth one.)
Through the many hints scattered across his writings, one can speculate about his heavily guarded creative process. He drew from both memory and orientation and then began to articulate, chiseling his prose with care and precision. He then let it be, only to return to it years later. If it still sounded right, it was good to go to a qualified friend or acquaintance for a peer review and subsequently to print. To take from Sarmad Sehbai, Yusufi was the master of his ecstasy – his words were subservient to him. Without letting go of his historical anchorage, the only tyrant he accepted was craft and that alone was enough to establish his position in the Urdu literary canon. His phrases dance to the tune of that craft and the elegance in their movement remains consistent. It is hard to come across an ill-conceived sentence or a half-baked thought in his writing.
In the latter half of the 20th century, nearly all of the greatest servants of Urdu were not its native speakers. Yusufi was no exception to this. In her 2010 essay on Aab-e-Gum, Dr Mehr Afshan Farooqi writes about Yusufi’s relationship with Urdu: “For him, Urdu is the water of life, but he is worldly-wise enough to point out the main property of water, its liquidity, its malleability, its vulnerability to changed circumstances, and to the futility and falsity of defining its future.”
Iftikhar Arif considers him the greatest prose writer after Ghalib. Hyperadjectivity is a concern, yes, but it is hard to argue the case against Yusufi. His prose is evidence for the civility and richness, of the life experiences of those belonging to his generation, and of a literary and cultural legacy, about which us third-generation Pakistanis heard plenty but saw rarely.
A common criticism of Yusufi is the lack of thematic integrity and logical progression in his essays. There are those who point towards the absence of a plot in his storytelling. Others are weary of his over-reliance on exhaustive details. Yusufi does not plead innocence for either. In Aab-e-Gum, he argues: “Plot exists only in cinema, dramas, novels and conspiracies. I never found a trace of it in everyday life.” As for his emphasis on detail, he contends that detail speaks for itself. The need to forcibly rein it into a narrative does not arise. He pledges allegiance to such names as Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Claude Simon and then mentions Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night as examples of a writing style he subscribes to. “The reason why I cite these masterpieces is that if I fail, it won’t prove the technique wrong but rather project my incompetence alone,” he writes.
The contention that Yusufi refuses to engage with his sociopolitical ecosystem is also quite bizarre. He time and again makes it clear that no writer can produce anything outside their circumstances and tradition, and masterfully touches upon numerous facets of the human condition. He differentiates between involuntary memory, the wellspring that he draws from, and nostalgia, which the characters of Aab-e-Gum have inflicted upon themselves — a nostalgia of time, space, the individual and the communal. The past in question is not necessarily factual, but a product of fantasy that one falls back on when they fail to engage with the trying times of the present — a postcolonial, post-independence and post-1971 Pakistan. “When the past begins to sound more engaging than the present and no future is in sight, then one must know that they’ve grown old,” he concludes.
“Yusufi’s books deal with many more aspects of life in the early years of (West) Pakistan and especially with human relations in a variety of circumstances,” writes Dr Christina Oesterheld in her 2011 essay Humor and Satire: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial. She underscores a “strong satirical censure and sometimes straight condemnation of religious hypocrisy and a mild exasperation with a fatalistic mindset” in his purchase on religion and society. Yusufi draws great amusement from the idiosyncrasies of the commoners but also does not spare the intellectual elite, whom he charges with being responsible for many of Pakistan’s wrongs.
Over the years, attempts were made to translate his work into English and make him accessible to a wider audience, but as the inimitable Intizar Husain wrote, Yusufi’s work is untranslatable. The biography of Basharat Ali Farooqi’s father-in-law in Yusufi’s essay Haveli is a case in point. Its nuanced linguistic subtleties and ruminations about bazaari paan, chooridar pajama and silk cummerbund – doused in tradition – can only be fully appreciated in their original state.
It is perhaps this untranslatability and the limited number of his works that prevented those outside the Urdu-speaking world from embracing him. One highly doubts if he ever wanted that to happen in the first place.
Guests had begun to fill chairs in the modest lawn of Anjuman-e-Tarraqi-e-Urdu Pakistan’s temporary home in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi in March last year. It was the launch of Mushfiq Khawaja: Idara, Fard, Nabigha, a book on the venerable Urdu scholar put together by Dr Syed Nomanul Haq, whom I had assisted on the project. My contribution had earned me the right to do a reading of a satirical column written by Mushfiq Khawaja on Habib Jalib. The ceremony was awaiting the presence of its president, Yusufi, and few believed that he would make it. Old age and health concerns had affected his mobility and speech considerably. (Yusufi had himself lost count of the number of conferences, mushairas and book launches that he had presided over, yet he would relent whenever someone close to him would persist.)
Anjuman’s honorary secretary Dr Fatema Hassan ensured his presence. As he was assisted to the stage, those present were grinning from ear to ear just by looking at him. I took to the podium when my name was called out and later hesitantly shook Yusufi’s bony hand, which melted in mine as he feebly praised me.
That day, I went home trembling. I had finally met the man who taught me humour and for whom my father had risked an eye.
The writer is a former staffer of the Herald